Duterte open to war games with China, but not US

Philippine leader says 'only China can help us' and is also open to joint drills with Russia

MANILA • Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is willing to hold military exercises with China but not long-time ally the United States, Chinese media quoted him yesterday as saying on the eve of a state visit.

Mr Duterte heads to Beijing today for a four-day trip that appears set to cement his dramatic foreign policy tilt away from the US, which he has railed against for criticising his deadly war on crime. "It's only China (that) can help us," China's state-run Xinhua news agency quoted Mr Duterte as saying in an interview ahead of his visit.

He also told Hong Kong-based Phoenix Television he was willing to hold joint military exercises with China and Russia.

"Yes, I will. I have given enough time for the Americans to play with the Filipino soldiers," he said when asked if he was open to war games with those two nations, as he reiterated he would no longer hold any more with the US.

"This will be the last. It has been programmed. I do not want my soldiers to be humiliated," Mr Duterte added, in reference to one set of war games in the Philippines that ended last week.

Mr Duterte has sought to reshape his nation's foreign relations since taking office on June 30, by pivoting towards China and Russia while moving away from the US, the Philippines' former colonial ruler and mutual defence ally. He has repeatedly expressed anger over American criticism of his war on crime, which has claimed more than 3,700 lives. He has also told US President Barack Obama to "go to hell".

But signalling his shift towards China is also for pragmatic reasons. Mr Duterte has repeatedly ridiculed the US for what he sees as its weakening economic and military influence globally.

Bilateral relations between Beijing and Manila worsened under Mr Duterte's predecessor Benigno Aquino, who tried to challenge China's expansionism in the South China Sea.

China claims nearly all of the strategically vital sea, even waters approaching the Philippines and other South-east Asian nations. It has in recent years built artificial islands in the disputed areas that are capable of hosting military bases.

To counter China, Mr Aquino allowed a greater American military presence in the Philippines and started joint patrols in the sea with US forces. He also filed a legal case at an international tribunal, which ruled in July that China's claims to most of the sea had no legal basis. Beijing refused to accept the ruling. Speaking on Sunday, Mr Duterte vowed not to surrender any sovereignty or deviate from the July ruling.

Asked about Mr Duterte's remarks, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying said that as he is the country's leader, he will make his policy based on the best interests of his country and people. China's position on the arbitration case is extremely clear and consistent, and China advocates peaceful talks between the parties directly involved to resolve the South China Sea issue, Ms Hua told a daily news briefing.

She added: "China's door has always been open to the Philippines, and I think you've also noticed President Duterte has many times said he wants dialogue with China and his positive desire to appropriately resolve relevant issues."

In the Xinhua interview, Mr Duterte thanked China for not criticising the crime crackdown as he held out the Philippines' hand for soft loans and other forms of financial help. "China never criticises. They help us quietly," Mr Duterte said, according to Xinhua.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 18, 2016, with the headline 'Duterte open to war games with China, but not US'. Print Edition | Subscribe